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Memory for stimulus sequences: a divide between humans and other animals?
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution. Brooklyn College, USA; Graduate Center of the City University of New York, USA.
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution.
Stockholm University, Faculty of Science, Department of Zoology. Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution.
Number of Authors: 3
2017 (English)In: Royal Society Open Science, E-ISSN 2054-5703, Vol. 4, no 6, 161011Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Humans stand out among animals for their unique capacities in domains such as language, culture and imitation, yet it has been difficult to identify cognitive elements that are specifically human. Most research has focused on how information is processed after it is acquired, e.g. in problem solving or 'insight' tasks, but we may also look for species differences in the initial acquisition and coding of information. Here, we show that non-human species have only a limited capacity to discriminate ordered sequences of stimuli. Collating data from 108 experiments on stimulus sequence discrimination (1540 data points from 14 bird and mammal species), we demonstrate pervasive and systematic errors, such as confusing a red-green sequence of lights with green-red and green-green sequences. These errors can persist after thousands of learning trials in tasks that humans learn to near perfection within tens of trials. To elucidate the causes of such poor performance, we formulate and test a mathematical model of non-human sequence discrimination, assuming that animals represent sequences as unstructured collections of memory traces. This representation carries only approximate information about stimulus duration, recency, order and frequency, yet our model predicts non-human performance with a 5.9% mean absolute error across 68 datasets. Because human-level cognition requires more accurate encoding of sequential information than afforded by memory traces, we conclude that improved coding of sequential information is a key cognitive element that may set humans apart from other animals.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2017. Vol. 4, no 6, 161011
Keyword [en]
stimulus sequences, working memory, animal cognition, human uniqueness
National Category
Biological Sciences Cultural Studies
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-145226DOI: 10.1098/rsos.161011ISI: 000404843200008OAI: oai:DiVA.org:su-145226DiVA: diva2:1128776
Available from: 2017-07-28 Created: 2017-07-28 Last updated: 2017-07-28Bibliographically approved

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Ghirlanda, StefanoLind, JohanEnquist, Magnus
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